Dachau in the First Days of the Holocaust

To the early prisoners of the camps, a straight line to Auschwitz, or something like it, may have been discernible within a few months of Hitler’s assumption to power. 

May-June 2015

No all-encompassing monograph has brought together the wealth of empirical information unearthed by numerous local studies of individual camp sites and an analytical approach that not only illuminates the bigger picture of Jewish camp imprisonment, but also embeds it in the broader context of anti-Jewish persecution before the war [emphasis added].

There is also, in the book’s title, a violation of the very principle the author aptly insists we observe, as students of history, about considering events in their own temporal context. Wünschmann skillfully brings to life an entire universe of people, events and dynamics—a feat she manages through precise attention to detail and her maintenance of humanistic sensitivity for the feelings, motivations and perceptions of all relevant actors, the killers included. These elements deserve to be understood and framed in terms that do not render them mere antecedents to more monstrous atrocities. This the author accomplishes at all points—except on the cover and title page.

By and large, though, students of this dark chapter in twentieth-century history should regard Before Auschwitz as an important and finely written contribution to the literature on Nazi Germany and the Holocaust. While repeatedly taking pains to note the fragmentary nature of the evidentiary record, Wünschmann synthesizes from an enormous array of available sources: camp administration files, SS records, newspaper reports, prisoners’ mail and memoirs, contemporaneous and postwar judicial proceedings, survivor testimony and, as mentioned above, a large body of previous historical investigation.


IN HER effort to “reconstruct the reality of the imprisonment of Jewish inmates,” Wünschmann is also mindful that some of the most extensive and seemingly reliable sources, such as survivor testimonies and memoirs, are freighted toward “unusual occurrences such as extreme manifestations of violence.” She cites the writings of Paul Martin Neurath, a Jewish sociologist who was imprisoned at Dachau and Buchenwald, and who warned that a relentless focus on beatings and killings provides a “distorted” picture of the prisoner’s life, which was instead dominated, he said, by “the 120 loads of gravel and the roll call and the construction of the bed and other routine jobs.”

More than just an aggregation of violent anecdotes, Before Auschwitz uses statistical modeling and other tools of political science to establish, as best as can be accomplished in these murky circumstances, such basic data as fluctuating camp populations, average inmate ages, geographic concentrations of inmate and guard origins, and so on. This kind of research enables Wünschmann to tell us that Jewish prisoners of the prewar camps “were mostly of a mature age—in their thirties or older—when they arrived. . . . Almost one-third of them were over the age of forty.” By contrast, she cites the work of historian Christopher Dillon in establishing that the average age of the Dachau SS guards declined, between 1933 and 1939, from twenty-five to twenty. “This means,” she writes, “that Jewish prisoners, on average, were ten to fifteen years older than the young men who guarded and abused them—a fact not unimportant to bear in mind when analyzing their conflicting relations.”

Wünschmann also describes how some camps, by virtue of their rural location—Osthofen, for example—were more likely to see guards and prisoners originating from the same towns, with the predictable consequence that lingering disputes about land, cattle prices or the affections of a local girl sometimes played out, under dramatically altered terms and often with violent endings, in the confines of the camp. For the last page—indeed, her last sentence— Wünschmann saves her most arresting statistical insight of all, which is the fact that “most of the Jewish prisoners of the prewar period stayed alive and were able to escape Nazi persecution.”

A research fellow at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Wünschmann devotes an entire chapter to the experiences of Jewish women in the prewar camps, and occasionally delves into a kind of machismo psychology, virulent among the SS but hardly unknown to the prisoner populations, to explain various behaviors. Thankfully, this approach stops short of the most polarizing features of gender studies and makes for some of this volume’s most enlightening observations. Again, she cites Neurath, who arrived at Dachau in April 1938 and whose memoir provides a veritable taxonomy of the “honorable” and “shameful” reactions a prisoner could exhibit in the face of beatings by camp guards. “If he cries and weeps, he is considered a weakling,” Neurath wrote, adding that the expectations of other prisoners, reflecting their own backgrounds and times, demanded that the stricken should “remain silent and solid, both before, during, and after the beating.”

While the Nazis’ first deportations to the camps focused as much on “political” prisoners as on Jews—brutal roundups of Communists, Bolsheviks, members of the labor movement, and journalists and lawyers who had bravely inveighed against Hitler and the brownshirts—Wünschmann demonstrates authoritatively that the Jews existed at the bottom of the prisoner hierarchy, suffering most acutely as outcasts among outcasts. “From the beginning,” she writes, “Jews in the early concentration camps were exposed to an extreme degree of violence, manifested most strikingly in a stark overrepresentation of Jews among the deaths.”